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    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

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Guns Kill Kids in Cities, Too. Green Spaces Could Be Part of the Fix.

Posted by Richard Conniff on February 26, 2018

Before treatment.


by Richard Conniff/Scientific American

Outrage over school shootings has dominated headlines, not just because the victims are children, but also because the shootings occur so randomly and in places—Parkland, FL, Newtown, CT– where it once seemed such a thing could never happen.

It’s harder to stir a national debate about the persistent and far larger problem of gun homicides in the nation’s poorest urban neighborhoods, even though more children die in urban gun violence than in school shootings. Maybe it’s just too predictable to hold our attention: The gun violence is extraordinarily concentrated–“hyper-segregated,” in the words of one criminologist–with a handful of neighborhoods in the nation’s 10 largest cities accounting for 30 percent of all gun homicides nationwide.

Now, though, it appears that predictability and geographic concentration could actually make urban gun violence easier to prevent.  For Columbia University epidemiologist Charles Branas, one answer is a relatively simple and inexpensive infrastructure improvement, involving derelict or abandoned city lots. Such lots add up to about 7.5 million acres of land and about 15 percent of the area of cities nationwide—and significantly higher percentages in mid-size cities like Flint, Michigan, or Camden, NJ.

Derelict lots often become the setting for drug dealing and other criminal behaviors and thus function as a primary threat to the health and safety of nearby residents, according to Branas, lead author of a study published Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).  He and his co-authors liken efforts to clean up these lots to the nineteenth-century public investment in sewage treatment and clean water systems as a means of curbing epidemic diseases and making cities livable.  Instead of cholera, says Branas, the “contagion” this time is urban gun violence, which he says spreads—and can be interrupted in its course—like any other epidemic.

For the new study, Branas and his co-authors looked at 541 vacant lots in randomized clusters across the entire city of Philadelphia, which has one of the highest murder rates in the nation. The study, supported by grants from the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control, assigned each cluster to one of three experimental options: a control group (meaning no treatment), a basic cleanup, or a “cleaning and greening” treatment, including installation of a lawn, a few trees, and a low perimeter fence “to show that the lot was cared for and to deter illegal dumping.”

The study describes conditions, in the worst neighborhoods, that make the two treatment options seem at first like improbable remedies. Some of the vacant lots being cleaned up were  crisscrossed by footpaths to drug “shooting galleries.” Some were in areas where dealers were paying “weekly rent” as high as $5000 to drug bosses for “the right to sell on blocks where inhabited row homes were interspersed with vacant properties,” according to the study. Against these odds, even the more expensive treatment, cleaning and greening, cost just $9300 for a typical 1000-square-foot lot, and about $50 a year for maintenance thereafter.  And yet both treatments made a measurable difference for local residents.

In response to survey questions –which made no mention of vacant lots–residents in low-income neighborhoods that received the “cleaning and greening” treatment reported a 15.8 decrease in their perception of crime incidence and a 61.9 percent increase in their willingness to relax and socialize outdoors. More impressively, police records for the 18-month period following the cleanup showed a 9.1 percent decrease in gun assaults in those neighborhoods, together with significant decreases in burglaries and nuisance complaints.  When the researchers re-analyzed their data to weed out areas where the lots failed for one reason or another to maintain their assigned treatment, they found a 29.1% decrease in gun violence in neighborhoods where the vacant lots had remained clean. It was such a significant improvement that the funding agencies for the study paid for the 150 lots in the control group to receive the cleaning-and-greening treatment. If extended to vacant lots city-wide, the authors write, that treatment would translate into 350 fewer shootings a year in Philadelphia alone.

The link between greenery and crime prevention is of course not new. Anti-crime initiatives have for decades pushed to clear dense vegetation as potential hiding places and to trim trees to create clear lines of sight. Then a landmark 2001 study of Chicago public housing projects turned greenery into a tool for crime prevention, showing that trees and greenspaces seemed to reduce crime rates by bringing out residents and putting more eyes on the street.  But evidence that greening actually causes a reduction in crime has proved elusive, making it harder to push for public action–until now.

The new study is the first to use a randomized experimental protocol to test the effect of greening on crime. “We knew that violence is generally lower in low-income urban neighborhoods when they’re greener, and we knew that reductions in violence tend to follow greening efforts,” says Ming Kuo, a University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign specialist on how the physical environment affects human behavior, who was not involved in the new study. “But we didn’t know if the greening was actually responsible for the reduction in violence. Now we know. This is a great advance—one the field has been waiting for. I don’t know if there is much point in asking a scientist what arguments a politician will find compelling. But from a scientific point of view, this should persuade city governments to try. I think it’s fair to say we don’t know for sure that this will have the same effects in every community—but the evidence we have suggests it should.”

Branas notes that cleaning-and-greening vacant lots does not “affect legal gun owner rights,” meaning groups that are otherwise divided by the bitter debate over gun control could agree together to implement such programs as a politically acceptable strategy to reduce gun violence. But Mark S. Kaplan, a public health researcher at the UCLA Luskin School of Public Affairs, who was not involved in the study, cautions that such programs “need to be done alongside other things. You have to address the question of social and economic inequality, and greenspace alone is not going to fix that.”  A major reduction in urban gun assaults is unlikely, he adds, “without regulation of the guns that are contributing to the violence.”

Oddly, though, a strength of the new study could just be its minimal approach to larger social and economic inequities: The risk in fixing too many things too fast is that it may attract developers, trigger gentrification, and drive out long-time residents.  Branas and his co-authors worried enough about that possibility that they added a study-within-the-study to check that any improvements they measured weren’t the result of gentrification.  But cleaning and greening vacant lots might be just enough, Kaplan suggests, to bring some sense of ownership and neighborhood identity to those communities, so they can push together for larger improvements—better schools, improved sanitation—and remain in the neighborhood to enjoy them afterwards.

For Branas, one of the most poignant moments in the study—and perhaps the beginning of that neighborhood identity—was the experience of having residents venture out from behind locked doors to greet the works crews as they arrived to clean up derelict lots.  “And they said, ’We called you about this 30 years ago! I can’t believe you’ve finally come to do this!’ Thinking that we were the city of Philadelphia.”


Richard Conniff is an award-winning writer for magazines and a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times. His books include House of Lost Worlds (Yale University Press, 2016) and The Species Seekers (W. W. Norton, 2010).




2 Responses to “Guns Kill Kids in Cities, Too. Green Spaces Could Be Part of the Fix.”

  1. […] After year of record deaths, right whales produce no new calves, which could be ‘catastrophic’ Guns Kill Kids in Cities, Too. Green Spaces Could Be Part of the Fix. World Wide Web Past encounters with the flu shape vaccine […]

  2. Winnifred said

    Great article !

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